You were told, many times, by many different mers, not to go near the humans.
They were dangerous. They were mean. They had no control, no honor, they would attack first and ask questions later, they would eat anything they found in the ocean. The reasons were endless, and for a long, long time, you obeyed without really thinking much about it. They were scary, if the stories were remotely true, and you had no desire to go anywhere near them.
That was before you spotted Abe Takaya.
The moment you laid eyes on him, suspended motionless in the water, you were possessed by a burning curiosity — who was he? Why was he wearing that weird fabric? Where was his tail, his fins, his scales?
Then you realized that, for some reason, he couldn’t breathe. You panicked, pulling him up and toward the nearby shore, realizing somewhere along the way what he was, and for a moment you thought it didn’t matter, that you were too late, and it nearly crushed you.
But he coughed, and spit out what looked like half the ocean, and saw you, and asked, “Who are you?”
And you answered.
Well, not with your voice — that doesn’t work above water. But you flicked your tail up above the surface, splashing him a little, and he sputtered and said, “Hey!” But then stopped suddenly, and his eyes widened, and for a moment you were terrified — had you messed up? Was the King right, to forbid human contact? Would he attack, or run away and tell others he’d seen you, or find a… a weapon?
But he got a strange look on his face, and his mouth curved in an expression that made you warm down to your fingertips, and said, “Do that again!”
So you did.
Over the course of a few weeks, you manage to develop a combination of hand signs and gestures that you could use to communicate above water. You could understand him, of course, but making noise above water hurt. In the water, you could speak, but he had to communicate with the hand signs, because you can’t understand him through all the useless air bubbles distorting his words. It’s challenging sometimes, and he can only stay underwater for less than a minute before he needs to breathe, but you fall into a rhythm, and the two of you make it work.
He scared you a little, at first. He was loud and yelled a lot, and you would freeze up and sometimes run away. But you always came back, a day or two later, and he would always be there, waiting, and after a while he learned not to shout quite so much, and you got more used to him, and you ran away less.
You explore coves together, collect little trinkets to give to each other, yours from deep under the surface at the bottom of the sea floor, his from his home, farther inland where you can’t go. You play catch a lot with driftwood and rocks and, on one memorable occasion, a beach ball, which Abe brought down with him, until you punctured it with your sharp nails, and looked at him in horror, and he just laughed.
And you realized, all at once but also slowly in all the time leading up to that moment, in a thousand small pieces of a puzzle all fitting together, that you want him to laugh like that every day, and be near you forever, by your side, but also that being together is completely impossible. You met someone that had such a profound impact on your life, who altered it completely, but it can’t last.
It’s forbidden for you to interact at all, but of course you’ve already broken that rule. The real problem is that the two of you are completely incompatible in every way: he needs air, you need water — you could only spend minutes in each others’ domain before suffocating; he’s loud where you are quiet, he is confident while you are hesitant; he is smart and clever and strong and you… are not. You can’t even talk at the same time. You can’t go to the same places, or have the same friends — no one could know, or that would be the end. There’s no way, it has been doomed from the start.
Except, maybe, for one possibility.
Years ago, there was another who left your people, betrayed them to follow a human. They are the reason it’s now forbidden, because it almost resulted in the annihilation of your kind — the human had told others, and then the news spread, and they’d feared what they didn’t understand, and attacked. Your entire family, your whole kingdom, had to run away, to leave your home, to escape the humans’ destruction. You’d been told the story since you were young.
But before that, the mer who started it all — they’d wanted to become human, too. There was a story about a Witch, a former mer, who was exiled for trying to help the mer become human, who set off the conflict by trying to help the mer and human be together.
But she still exists, and you think you know where she is, after combining the stories you know with some that Abe has told you.
You have no idea if she’ll agree to help you, but you know you have to try.
You’re a little bit of an outcast, so for the most part, your time away from the other mer has been overlooked, with one notable exception.
Your childhood friend, the only one that still checks up on you regularly — Kanou. He, of course, notices immediately.
You try to lie, because you know your lives might depend on it, and Abe had been very insistent about keeping quiet, but you can only hide so much from your best friend before he figures everything out. He can read you like a book.
Or just follow you one day when you disappear to meet Abe, and find everything out all at once.
(He was mostly worried, although he did shoot a couple glances at Abe those first few days that were less than friendly. But Kanou is a very good person, and you know they will get along. Eventually.)
So, as soon as you realize what you need to do, there is only one person you can talk to about it.
Kanou’s only question is, “when do we go?”
Kanou is much braver than you, and also kinder, and it didn’t matter how dangerous your mission was, or what risk it might pose to him. You needed his help, and he wasn’t about to let you down.
It isn’t hard to find the undersea cove that lay forgotten at the edge of your kingdom’s territory. No one is permitted around here, because there are myriad dangers — sharks, some leftover mines from when the humans fought one of their (many, many) wars, sharp rocks and coral, poisonous creatures.
But you have a mission, and Kanou isn’t going to let you back out now.
It’s dark, and you have to swim slowly, to avoid the strange-colored substance that coats the walls of the cove, when you hear a voice.
“Why are you here, little fishes? You’re a very long way from home.”
You startle, darting behind Kanou, who swims right up to the shadowy figure at the center of the small cavern. He’s trembling a little, which you only know because you’re holding on to his arm, but he squares his shoulders, determined, his mouth a firm line.
“My friend wants to become human, and we know you tried to help one of us before. Can you do it?”
The Witch swims forward into a small pool of light, and looks between the two of you.
“Last time I tried to help, I was exiled for my trouble. Why should I risk suffering an even worse fate?”
“I wasn’t asking you.”
She looks at you. You gulp.
You want to swim away, far away, more than anything. You have no idea what she’s capable of — if she could kill you both, right on the spot. Or trap you here forever.
But if she isn’t lying, she’d only been exiled for wanting to help. You hold on to that, and stand your ground, taking a gulp of water.
You think about Abe, and the future you could have if you don’t flee. And you swim up next to Kanou, and clench your fists, and say, “P-Please. I’ll do — a-anything. I just want… to be able to… t-talk to him, without s-s-suffocating. With… my voice. M-Ma’am.”
You wring your webbed hands, and look at the ground, unable to meet her fierce gaze any longer. You squeeze your eyes shut, and hope it’s enough.
“...Fine,” she says, after a pause, “I will do what I can. But you’re going to need to get some things for me. And quit it with the ma’am stuff — call me Momoe.”
You hate going near the vent.
Sure, it’s warmer than your home, but so is the surface! Why would anyone go so deep into the ocean just to get to the vent, when you can go up instead, and splash around near the air, where it’s not dark and oppressive and creepy and now also eerily warm?
Because you need some ingredients for Momoe, it turns out, is why.
You asked if you could just get a regular crab (“Aren’t they s-similar…?”
“They may be similar, but they are not the same. Do you or don’t you want human legs?! Do you want them to have extra toes, or not enough toes, or to have no hair, or a shell? What about if they’re orange or blue instead of leg-colored? No? Get me a kiwa.”)
You shudder. Momoe is really scary when she’s mad.
Luckily, you recently met Tajima Yuuichirou, and nothing in the entire ocean scares him.
You wanted to tell him the whole story right away, because Tajima has always been honest with you in the short time you’ve known him and you’re a terrible liar and Tajima is not stupid, but Kanou convinced you not to, for now. So all he knows is you want some little white hairy-looking lobster-like creatures from near the vent, and he was overjoyed to go with you and help you get them, and didn’t ask any questions about it.
You are very thankful for Tajima and his willingness to explore all the deep, dark corners of the ocean.
“Hey, look, Ren! Is this it?” Tajima asks, pointing at a tiny, white crab scuttling along the ocean floor.
“N-no, not that one. It h-has… um, a tail, and, bigger claws.”
“Ooh, bigger claws? Cool! Hey, what do you want one for, anyway?”
“Uhhhh,” you say, and stammer, and point, and try desperately to think of a reason you might want a tiny crustacean that would be remotely believable.
“Oh look, Mihashi, this seaweed is super weird, I’ve never seen any like it, it’s not green! I’m grabbing some of this to show Azusa,” Tajima says, excited, and yanks some seaweed free to shove into the small bag tied around his tail, and you deflate in relief.
Tajima Yuuichirou is also, thank Poseidon, very easily distracted.
But Tajima’s excitement about plants gets you thinking, and you realize that the seaweed does look weird, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, either, and you never would have, if it weren’t for Momoe. You’ve never been to this vent before, ever, or seen all the things living here, and you realize that it’s not quite as creepy or weird as you’d built it up to be in your head.
By the time you and Tajima leave, you’d almost forgotten the reason you were even there, because you’d been so distracted by all the wonders of the ocean around you.
It occurs to you, then, that there are a lot of places in the ocean you haven’t seen, and you’ll never be able to if you suddenly have legs and can no longer breathe under water.
But there are probably lots of interesting places on land, too, right? And you’ll get to see those with Abe.
As you swim home with Tajima, you realize you’re a little more tired than usual, and something about the water feels different, and when you look at your hands, you realize the thin webbing that used to connect your fingers is gone.
You may be no good at lying, but you are even worse at stealing.
And of course this, of all things, is what Momoe wants for the second ingredient to make her transformation... formula… potion.
She needs something belonging to Abe. And not just anything, either — she wants something important to Abe, or the spell won’t work, she said. There has to be a connection. You think? It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to you, magic is weird.
But you know exactly what you need to steal, and the worst part is, it will be easy. You think Abe will probably give it to you without question, because he trusts you, if you only ask. And that makes it so much harder.
“This is it?” You ask with your hands, hesitant, reaching for the soft leather.
“Yeah. I mean, it’s not a big deal, I can’t even use it anymore, it’s all worn through here, look.” He gives you the old baseball glove, just drops it in your hands, and you can smell the leather and feel the soft texture of it against your fingers.
“I want… to play a game,” you say, your hand shaping the words before you can stop yourself.
Abe chuckles. “What, on land? I don’t think that would go so well for you, with a tail and all.”
“If… If it was p-possible. For me, to walk. Then, we could play. Together. For real.”
Abe hums. “If it were possible, huh… Well, with your arm, you’d definitely be a pitcher. And I’m a catcher, so that would work out pretty well. I’d have to teach you the rules, so I’d probably be calling all the plays until you got the hang of it.” Abe seems to space out for a minute, thinking about it, before making a face, his nose all scrunched up, and looking back at you.
“Nah, it’s more fun out here, by the water. I like how unpredictable the wind is, it makes it more of a challenge.” He grins crookedly at you, and you feel your heart rate stutter and increase. “Maybe we can make up a new game, with swimming instead of running. I’ll just have to practice until I can keep up with you.”
“That… could be fun,” you sign at him. It’s a little slower with one hand, the other still holding his glove.
“You can keep it, if you want,” Abe says, and you realize he’s been watching you, and you’ve been holding on to it very, very tightly.
“Oh, I c-couldn’t,” you say, feeling a deep regret, almost sick with the knowledge of your deception. What were you thinking?
“I’ve got a new one, it’s fine. I want you to have it,” he says, a little mumbly, his glance sliding off to the side as he rubs at his hair. “It might fall apart in the water, but it’s not doing me any good now, so. It’s fine.” He clears his throat, crosses his arms, shifts a little where he’s sitting on the rocks at the edge of the water.
“Thank you,” you say, unable to give it back after all that, the fondness and guilt clashing angrily in your chest, your throat nearly choking off the words as the emotions crash through you. You hate lying. But you want to be with him, and this is the only way you know how, and you’ll do anything.
You think about having a glove of your own, keeping it somewhere dry and sunny, and throwing a ball across the sand instead of over open water, and you hope it’s worth it, in the end. It has to be.
Before heading home, Abe frowns a little, studying you again. You immediately worry that somehow he’s figured you out, that he knows everything, and he’s going to hate you for it.
But all he says is, “Hey, are your eyes a different color?”
You’ve only ever been in the palace once, before today, and it’s not a day you like to remember.
Besides, if all goes according to plan, this will be the last time, and you won’t have to think about this place ever again.
You cling desperately to this hope as you inch toward the doors that lead to the Vault, the key that will open it clenched tightly in your no-longer-webbed fist, willing the guards’ attention to stay on Tajima.
“But what if I really want to be a Palace guard? How can I become one?”
“You can’t, kid. Go home.”
“Aw, but you guys look so cool! Come on, tell me! I’ll work really really hard, I promise! Oops, sorry!”
You flinch at the loud thud of Tajima throwing his arms around violently enough to shove one of the guards back several feet, and hope they’re nice guards, and don’t end up murdering Tajima, or throwing him in a cell somewhere to rot for being reckless. You weren’t that lucky, last time, but everyone likes Tajima, so maybe he’ll be fine.
You try not to think about it as you reach the door. The key Sakaeguchi gave you works, and you slip as noiselessly as you can manage through them, hoping if you’re fast enough Tajima won’t get into as much trouble.
Then you’re in the Vault.
It’s dark, because you don’t want to alert anyone so you haven’t activated any of the glow lamps, but what little moonlight shines through from the latticed glass ceiling shimmers and reflects off of many different display cases. Most of the things in this room are old and fragile, and the temperature of the Vault is carefully controlled to keep them from deteriorating, and there are filters humming in every corner of the room to keep the water as clear as possible.
The elaborate, pearl-lined finery of the Royal line, the set that was retired several generations ago because it was too bulky and uncomfortable in favor of a more modern set, doesn’t interest you, and you swim past it without paying much attention.
There are several precious artifacts from the grand city the mer used to live in, before they fled — a tapestry of woven seagrass, with a depiction of the city in bright colors, a few jewelry boxes full of decorative tail ornaments made from materials that are much harder to find half an ocean away, a carved tablet of genealogy, listing the oldest Royals you have records of, now missing several pieces along the edges after being hastily packed away and transported so far. You swim past these also, only glancing briefly at your people’s history. None of this is what you’re here for.
In the back, behind one of the displays, covered in a thin layer of sand and seaweed, is a simple coral box. You open it carefully, the hinge brittle and bleached of color, and pull out the small pendant inside.
This one doesn’t have any pearls or precious gems, it isn’t made of rare minerals, and doesn’t have elaborate designs etched onto the surface. It’s simple and plain, compared to most things in the room.
It’s also one of the many things in the room that doesn’t belong to the Royal family, and you remove it carefully from the box and tuck it into your bag.
You’re not a moment too soon, because you hear Sakaeguchi approach from behind you and have to choke back a scream when he taps you on the shoulder and scares you half to death, but he only leads you out the one-way side exit he uses when he’s done cleaning the Vault every day, once he has his key back and you show him your prize. He grins at you, recognizing the Witch’s pendant, and gives you a quick hug before he shoves you out the exit and returns to his cleaning duties.
It may be the last time you ever see Sakaeguchi. He was the reason you made it out of the palace in one piece last time, and he’s the reason you’ll be free this time, too. He agreed to help you as soon as Tajima told him what you wanted, when you were starting to think you’d never find a way to get it, and both you and Kanou were out of ideas.
You owe Sakaeguchi a lot, and hope you’ll be able to repay him, someday.
Momoe seems surprised, at first, when you show up with all the things she asked for, and after a moment of holding her pendant in a shaking hand, she fastens it around her neck and nods, her smile fierce and bright.
She throws the leather glove and herbs you brought her into a large cauldron, followed by a lot of other things from her cabinets and shelves, pulled from a satchel or a trunk or her garden. You look around, curious, as she moves erratically through her home, muttering, grabbing things, throwing some in while putting others back with a shake of her head.
At one point, she hesitates in front of a small, clear stone, looking at it for a moment before moving on. You had never seen her make that expression, and you burned with curiosity, but your lips stay pressed firmly together out of fear.
“What does that do?” Kanou asks, and you are filled with a mixture of dread at what her reaction might be, and relief that the question burning inside you is given a voice.
“It’s a second chance,” she says cryptically, without looking at Kanou, before returning to her task. She continues to mutter to herself, at one point squeezing the juice out of a weird fruit barehanded before throwing the entire thing in the cauldron. You shudder, intimidated, and quietly resolve to never, ever cross her.
It takes almost an hour, but by the end, she approaches you with a small corked bottle.
“This will make the changes permanent. You have twenty-four hours. Make absolutely sure this is what you want before you drink it. Got it?”
You open your mouth to agree, but suddenly you’re choking, and kicking at the water around you, and your vision gets blurry, and fear clenches at your chest, squeezing you in a vice.
She tucks the bottle into your bag and shoves you toward Kanou, saying something you can’t understand because nothing sounds right, and you can’t think, and then you’re dragged through the water, up and up and up, and when you breach the surface you take in a huge lungful of air, through your mouth instead of your gills, and cough the water violently out of you as Kanou drags you to the rocky shore. Your skin feels dry and your eyes burn, and the water has never felt so foreign.
Kanou wasn’t a faster swimmer than you, until now. Your legs — your human legs — kick worthlessly at the water, partly because you’re exhausted and sluggish, but mostly because they are not a tail. Moving them separately is so strange.
You feel the loss more keenly than you thought you would.
After a few minutes of lying on the beach trying to catch your breath, you try to stand.
It...doesn’t go very well.
Kanou laughs at you a little as he tries to coach you, telling you you’re doing it wrong, and you throw sand at him and hobble awkwardly between rocks and realize you have absolutely no idea how to find Abe.
It doesn’t matter, though, because, of course, Abe finds you.
“A-A...be,” you say, not used to your vocal chords making noise in the air instead of the water, but his smile is huge, bigger than you’ve ever seen, and it burns you from the inside out.
“How?” He asks, picking you up and spinning you around in excitement. Then he frowns, expression clouding over. “What did you do?”
“A w-witch made it… for me,” you manage as you cling to him, a little dizzy, trying to remember to breathe, that you’re supposed to, now, above water instead of below.
“That sounds risky,” Abe says, his voice a low rumble as he finally sets you down, and you realize that when you’re up against him you can feel it, all through his chest, and you rest a hand there, wonderingly, now that you can get close enough to reach.
“Won’t you miss it? The water, your friends, your family?”
You glance up at him and see him looking out towards the water, and shove down a deep ache. Focusing on his voice, you shake your head. “I don’t… I would rather, um. Be… here.”
But then you glance at the water too, and you see Kanou, who is watching you, and smiling sadly, and you realize there is a lot you’re leaving behind that you hadn’t thought about at all a few days ago. You won’t be able to swim with Kanou, or Tajima, or repay Sakaeguchi, or explore any more caves or vents or new places.
But you’ll have Abe. And that’s all you need, right?
Kanou splashes you, and uses his hands to gesture at you, holding up a finger, and miming drinking.
“Oh, r-right,” you say, and reach into your bag. You explain the bottle to Abe, who looks relieved.
“A day, huh? Well, we’ll just have to make the most of it, then.” He grins at you, and you never want to let him go.
The three of you watch the sunset, and then you tell Kanou you’ll be back here tomorrow, before your deadline. He nods and dips back under the water, and you follow Abe as he leads you back to his house. His home.
Abe’s family is loud, and full of warmth. They welcome you immediately, once Abe has snuck in the back to grab you a set of clothes (clothes were new and weird and you weren’t sure you liked them) and feed you an enormous amount of food, most of which you’ve never seen before. You stick mostly with the fish and familiar things, but you try a couple bites of the unfamiliar dishes — small, white, fluffy stuff Abe calls rice, with a dark, salty liquid on top that reminds you of the ocean, crunchy vegetables you don’t recognize, and gooey, sticky food that has a strong smell.
(Smell is so different when you breathe air instead of water. You haven’t decided yet if you like it.)
Some of it is good, some of it you definitely don’t like, but you’re happy you get to experience it all with Abe.
You sleep on the floor of Abe’s room, passing out as soon as you crawl between the soft sheets, exhausted from your day. The blanket is a comforting weight on top of you, and you sleep deeply that night, feeling content down to your bones.
Your first stop the next morning is, obviously, the park with the baseball field that Abe has told you about many times.
Abe’s little brother has an extra glove, and Abe gives you a hat, and brings a wooden bat. You get to try to hit the ball for the first time, which scares you a little, and the bat is heavy. But you love to throw, and Abe teaches you how many different ways there are to throw the ball now that you have fingers that can try all the different pitches, and you’re fascinated and soak up all the information like it’s a part of you, and you were just waiting to be reunited with it.
You play almost all day, until you both get too hungry, and then you walk together through Abe’s hometown looking for food, and end up at a small stall that has little fish-shaped snacks with filling inside, which make you both laugh.
The day is very nearly perfect. But, as you walk to the beach, the sun getting steadily lower in the sky, the bottle is heavy in your pocket.
(Pockets! You have pockets now! Pockets are the best, and may have single-handedly sold you on clothes as a concept.)
Abe takes your hand, and you focus on it, on the texture, his skin against your skin, no scales or webbing in the way, both of your hands dry and warm.
“I don’t...b-belong here,” you say, and you realize how true the words are as you say them. You want so badly, so badly, to belong here, to be a human, to stay. But something has felt… off, the whole time.
This is not your world.
It’s exciting, and different, and has Abe in it, but it’s not yours.
You feel hot tears spill down your cheeks, and it hurts, but you know you’re not wrong.
“Yeah, I had a feeling,” Abe says quietly, and he sounds resigned, and it feels like the last bolt on a door locking you away from the dream you had. It was such a nice, beautiful dream, and you wanted it more than anything.
Abe wraps you in a warm hug, and you cling to the tiny bottle, and wish it felt right, but after the past few days — collecting all the ingredients, exploring places you’d never been before — it showed you things about yourself you weren’t aware of. Things you never would have learned on land, with legs instead of a tail.
“You shouldn’t have to change for anyone,” Abe says, pulling back to look at you. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot today, and it’s not fair to ask you to do this. We were happy before, right?”
You nod, clinging to his hands. Giving this up will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
“There is another option.”
You jump, and Abe’s head snaps toward the water, where Momoe is floating with her head and shoulders just above the surface, her arms crossed, looking at you. Kanou is just behind her, only his eyes visible above the surface.
“What do you mean?” Abe asks, pulling you behind him protectively, wary.
“I mean just because all Mihashi asked for was legs, doesn’t mean that’s the only way.” She uncrosses her arms, and holds up the small, clear stone Kanou had asked her about.
“I’ve been holding on to this for a long, long time, hoping someone would come back for it. But it looks like they’re not going to, so I might as well give it to you. If you want it.”
Abe narrows his eyes. “What does it do?”
She grins, and tosses it to Abe, who catches it, because he has excellent reflexes, and you’ve been throwing a baseball at him all day.
Then he drops to the sand, because he no longer has legs to stand on.
Abe makes a gurgling noise, clutching at his throat, and lashes his tail against the sand, tossing it up in every direction.
You yelp, and drag him into the water, but then Abe drops the stone in his desperate flailing, and his legs are back, and he’s sitting in the shallow water, soaking wet, panting, looking at you with wide, wondering eyes. You’re both now covered in sand and soaking wet.
Momoe shrugs. “Just thought I’d give you some more options. Take it or leave it, I don’t need it anymore.” She sinks back into the ocean before you can thank her, but something tells you you’ll get a chance later.
You look back to Abe, who stares at you, and then glances at the rock laying on the sand, and then his face splits into a wide, shit-eating grin.
“Now this, we can work with.”
You spend your last few minutes with legs sitting with him on the beach, and then, when your transformation wears off and you have a tail again, Abe picks up the stone.
This time, it’s your turn to show him your home, and you’ve never been more excited in your life.
Thank you for reading!